Don't Kill Your Darlings, Just Remove and Save for Later

first burn.jpg

Some of the best lines I have ever written have not actually appeared in final drafts of my plays and monologues. (Not surprisingly, that goes ten-fold for my corporate copywriting.)

Sometimes I take a line out because it's only funny -- or relevant -- to me. Sometimes whole scenes have to be excised to make room for something new. Just as characters are added during editing, occasionally a character is eliminated.  That's hard. That's saying goodbye to a friend who no one else will ever know. 

My sensible editor-self may know immediately that something doesn't fit, or a snippet of dialogue worked great before other changes were made, and now those "extra" pieces have got to go. But the original will always be in my brain. 

In his book On Writing, (which is the only book about writing I have ever found to be inspiring or useful) Stephen King says, "Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric scribbler's heart. Kill your darlings." This means, of course, that just because you're in love with a certain turn of phrase, that doesn't make it the perfect line in your play. If you like it too much, if you're too proud of it and too attached, it's easy to look the other way, and NOT do the thing that your work really needs to. . . well . . .work. 

Which is why I have folders on my computer full of drafts. Lots and lots of rough drafts. You never know when you can recycle or adapt something for a new contest or context. You don't throw out the pie you made, just because your mother-in-law brought cake to the party. You just put it away for another time. 

And the most amazing, jaw-dropping example of this philosophy comes from Mr. Lin Manuel Miranda himself, who recently released an early version of "Burn" -- Eliza's heartbreaking song from Hamilton, after she's humiliated by her husband's extra-marital affair.

Let me be clear. The version of the song that ended up in the mega-hit musical is simply divine. And so is the previous version. 

But when audiences first heard the original song, it was so angry and fierce that listeners couldn't imagine Alexander and Eliza ever reconciling, which they have to do in order for the show to have a second act. 

I love that LMM was brave enough to cut this exquisite song brimming with emotion, to write a new version that fit better with the arc of the play. I also love that he kept it. And now that Hamilfans are hungrily devouring every scrap of paper, video, photo, and melody that LMM can produce, what a wonderful time to celebrate the also-ran. And what a gift to hear the five actresses currently playing Eliza in productions across the country bring this song out of the "drafts" folder and breathe such vibrant life into it. 

Ultimatley l agree that the final version of "Burn" was perfect and necessary for the show. But I love that we get to hear the first attempt too -- which is so gorgeous in its own right.